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The antagonist of my story trades steel with a non-human, and non-humanoid, race, in return for a magical substance. They place great value in steel as they cannot manufacture it themselves. That is, they do know how steel production works, yet some aspect of their biology makes it unfeasible for them.

In this setting, steel is produced using wind furnaces as was historically done in Sri Lanka.

How would the production of steel be impossible for a species? Explanations to this would preferrably be biological, rather than magical, and not too alien since this is a mammalian race, designed with evolutionary plausibility in mind.

Clarification: steel production is possible in the environment that they live in (there is iron and carbon, and there are possible heat sources).

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    $\begingroup$ To be clear: they live in an environment where steel production is possible (ie iron and carbon are around and heat can be used for smelting), but biologically they’re incapable of producing it? $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Mar 18 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ To all the answers about heat problems with this race, if they are trading steel lingots, then they still need to forge those into something useful. Unless they directly trade for finished items. $\endgroup$ – maxisalamone Mar 18 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ I'll note that you don't need an absolute prohibition. Simple things like "the human lands have good iron deposits, and they're just better at this than we are" can easily result in a group deciding to just make something else and trade for the steel they need. Unless the costs are exorbitant or there's a risk of losing the supply, there's no good reason to try to beat the humans at their own game. $\endgroup$ – user3757614 Mar 18 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ if the only steel in your setting is produced by wind furnace then your answer is they don;t have places with the right wind. wind furnaces need a fair rare combination of conditions. $\endgroup$ – John Mar 19 at 1:24
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    $\begingroup$ I'm going to issue the same frame challenge as @user3757614. Instead of having a species that can't or won't make steel themselves, you could have a species that mostly doesn't make steel themselves and instead trades for it, just because it is economically cheaper in the market where they live. There are any number of possible reasons for this to be economically more efficient, such as distribution of raw materials or labor resources between locations—i.e., the same reasons why countries trade in real life. $\endgroup$ – Aaron Rotenberg Mar 20 at 6:53

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Three suggestions:

One:

I would suggest "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen".

Some aspects of steel production use a lot of heat. In a fantasy story, steel would be produced by ancient, medieval, or early modern methods, instead of by modern industrial methods, and so would involve more manual labor close to the steel than modern steel production does.

Possibly these non human people are very sensitive to heat and can not force themselves to get close enough to the heat source to be able to do anything, included necessary steps in steel production.

Possibly those non human people have a lot of hair, fur, or feathers that can catch fire from stay sparks and so they reduce their use of fire to a bare minimum.

I note that humans (Homo sapiens) are believed to have evolved as endurance hunters, who chased prey for hours at a time in the African heat until they caught their prey. Thus humans have far more sweat glands than most animals and can cool off better than most animals.

If those non human people don't have sweat glands or as many as humans, possibly they might overheat and die when trying to make steel.

If your character trades blank ingots of steel to those people that would not work. They would have to work the steel to make into objects they could use, and so they would have to work the steel when it was very hot. Unless they use magic to turn a steel ingot into a steel object with the same mass, but cannot use magic to turn iron, carbon, etc. into steel.

Two:

Possibly these people are allergic to elemental iron and/or carbon, and/or to all forms of steel except for surgical steel.

Surgical stainless steel is a grade of stainless steel used in biomedical applications. The most common "surgical steels" are austenitic SAE 316 stainless and martensitic SAE 440, SAE 420, and 17-4 stainless steels. There is no formal definition on what constitutes a "surgical stainless steel", so product manufacturers and distributors often apply the term to refer to any grade of corrosion resistant steel.

(source: Wikipedia)

They then would be unable to make steel themselves, though they could use hypoallergenic surgical steel.

Three:

Possibly these nonhuman people lack the necessary physical strength for some part of the steel making process, which in a fantasy setting would probably involve a lot of physical labor instead of automated mechanical processes. Possibly they can't beat the steel ingots with enough force to shape them into any products.

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    $\begingroup$ All of these problems can be worked around. Humans already can't stand the heat of a furnace, so they use distance and protective clothing; humanity has been working with toxic substances (e.g. mercury, the "mad as a hatter" meme goes back to hatmakers having to use mercury); lack of physical strength can be overcome with power sources such as running water (humans used hammer mills to overcome strength and endurance limits). $\endgroup$ – toolforger Mar 19 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ At the level of technology indicated, the ability to protect yourself against heat is minimal. If you want to work metal in an era before automation, you need to get close to and work in heat. Even today, with powered ventilation, remote operation, automation, and protective clothing, temperatures in working areas in steel mills can get up to 40 degrees Celsius, and that is difficult for humans to work in for extended lengths of time, and we evolved in a hot part of the planet. I can easily see a species more cold-adapted simply unable to deal. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Mar 19 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ @toolforger Pretty much any non-magical biological shortcomming can be worked around by using technology. But it's not really necessary for these workarounds to be completely infeasible. They just need to be infeasible enough that importing all steel from people who do not need these workarounds makes more economical sense for them. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Mar 20 at 14:58
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They are Fae

In most lore, faeries hate, hate, hate iron. It is offensive and toxic to them.

It's not so bad in your world. Iron is to your fae as di-isocyanates are to us humans. Touching bare iron feels bad, but skin is a good barrier as long as they don't overdo it; and they can work with cool iron using common PPE like gloves and long-sleeve shirts. But inhaling or ingesting brings serious effects quickly. See the spiral of symptoms humans get from di-isocyanates, such as IgG reactions, extreme allergies, and eventual immune system collapse.

Any of the normal coatings you put on an iron/steel object to keep it from rusting, like paint, zinc galvanizing or chrome, protect the Fae pretty completely. Also, rust doesn't bother Fae; that would be evolutionarily sensible since natural iron exists in oxide form.

They love their musclecars and tolerate them being steel since they are painted, but they would never say "Detroit iron" because the 4-letter word is not something you brag about. Those with the means gravitate toward non-ferrous components; aluminum heads, brass body panels, aluminum frames, but concede to the necessity of steel in extreme stress applications such as roller bearings, valve springs, and gears.

Being around a blacksmith working red-hot iron/steel, they get sunburns from the radiant energy, the fumes are offensive and choking like sulfur, and will make them mildly ill if they vacate soon, but if they persist, they'll be in the hospital.

  • So a Fae can rebuild the engine on their '67 Barracuda with fairly good PPE: goggles, mask, gloves, and don't touch the bare steel parts.
  • Hot work, like welding or blacksmithing, requires a moon suit with supplied air (like what car/aircraft painters use because of the isocyanates).

Being around a steel mill, that would be like Bhopal to them. So running their own smelters is simply out of the question.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's implied that they use steel, just can make it $\endgroup$ – CSM Mar 19 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ My apologies, read too quickly. In the stories I've read, the fae are affected even steel that's been painted over. $\endgroup$ – CSM Mar 19 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ @CSM Yeah, it could've been clearer. Edited. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Mar 19 at 17:53
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Steel mills are loud, hot places fraught with many dangers. If your race is biologically particularly sensitive to loud sounds and vibrations, it would be very difficult to get workers to produce much steel. Add in some sensitivities to say asbestos (maybe the only insulator on your planet) and it could become cost prohibitive to produce steel and still give your employees the protections they will need.

Even today in our time of automation, safety-consciousness, and technology, steel workers still experience incredibly high rates of workplace morbidity compared to average. If your species has weakened lungs and is susceptible to vibrations (say Vestibular Hyperacusis), they could be incapable of working around the equipment required to produce and work steel, even while taking "normal" safety precautions. Add in an inability to cope with temperature changes, and they wouldn't be able to wear most protective gear to deal with the heat generated.

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    $\begingroup$ Ooh.. sapient spiders would haaaate forges. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Mar 18 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs Sapient spiders wearing steel armor... shudder $\endgroup$ – Nzall Mar 19 at 10:07
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They cannot be consistent.

These creatures do not follow recipes. The concept of a recipe is difficult for them - steps that you follow to make it right. They do not do things the same way the second time because it turned out good the first time. In fact, under the circumstances of their evolution, if it turned out good the first time it is unlikely to work again and so you should mix it up; even if you remember what you did the first time (difficult!) you should avoid that. If there is a need to follow a set series of steps to produce a thing, these creatures really cannot produce that thing. These creatures do not have steel. Neither do they bake cakes.

These creatures think very differently than humans. They are creative, spontaneous, and would seem to have a high tolerance for chaos and wasted effort. Humans are all about pattern recognition. We are empirics. Earth's is Pavlov's domain. If something worked before, it will probably work again, even though there is no logical reason that it should. It is hard for us to wrap our heads around something which did not recognize value in empiricism.

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    $\begingroup$ Humans can sell them swords and Betty Crocker Cake mix! $\endgroup$ – EDL Mar 19 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ Actually they do bake, they just never bake the same cake again. $\endgroup$ – toolforger Mar 19 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ A very creative answer, and plausible: You have to follow pretty exact rules to get useful steel. $\endgroup$ – toolforger Mar 19 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ But OP says that people of the species understand how to make steel $\endgroup$ – Galactic Mar 21 at 18:57
  • $\begingroup$ @galactic_analyzer: there are many things which I understand in principle but which I lack the skills to practice. Steelmaking is one of them. I know it is not magic and involves oxygen, and .. um, carbon. Iron too. Potassium? But it is definitely not magic. $\endgroup$ – Willk Mar 21 at 23:40
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They live in water and are heavy (see whales and likes). The only metallurgy they can acheive is water-based electrolysis and they do that pretty well, but they cannot melt metals and cannot make alloys. Steel is important for them even considering corrosion, stainless steel - even more.

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They're perfectly capable of produce steel but they dont dare to.

For their culture and religious beliefs, to ransack mother earth is a terrible sin which dooms their souls and the souls of their children. But they're perfectly fine if other beings are willing to condemn their souls this way.

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  • $\begingroup$ It says that a SPECIES is incapable of producing steel, not a culture. There could be (and likely are) multiple cultures/religions existing within that species’s range. It is very unlikely that all of those cultures have the same taboo unless there is a biological basis for the taboo. $\endgroup$ – Galactic Mar 22 at 17:57
  • $\begingroup$ That's a good point. But I disagree (just a little). Each species have common ground belief shared for the whole population with little exceptions, as exemple: the homo sapiens species share the belief that cooking and eating your own offspring is a bat thing to do. Nevertheless, overall I think thay you are more right than wrong on your point. $\endgroup$ – PaperBirdMaster Mar 22 at 21:09
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It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a start:

They live at very cold temperatures. The kind of temperatures where a warm summer means you’re only a degree or two below freezing. As a result they have shocking thermal regulation (no need to sweat to cool down) and very, very good insulation.

This means that staying in environments that need to stay hot (say, forges) for long periods of time is Not Good. It’s incredibly uncomfortable and rapidly leads to heatstroke. Imagine putting a husky with a full winter coat in a foundry. It’s a terrible idea. While it’s not entirely impossible for these creatures to work metal or smelt alloys, it wouldn’t be their first choice.

Especially not when you’d be better off trading food for steel and saving all your valuable fuel for the winter ice storms.

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  • $\begingroup$ If the species is adapted to live in such cold environments, why they need fuel for the winter ice storms? $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Mar 18 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre There’s cold and there’s cold. If they can comfortably survive in the -5 to -30 band they might still need shelter and fuel for the times when it hits -40 every night. If they’re an extremely polar species such fuel might be hard to come by, hence, stockpile it for when you really need it. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Mar 18 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ As someone who only tends to use his forge in the winter, making steel does not mean you have to be hot yourself. $\endgroup$ – John Mar 19 at 12:25
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I do not think they are unable to make steel, they are unable to make iron at all. This is because if you can make iron, it is fairly easy to get steel. Getting it consistently at volume can be tough but you can get it by accident just by being lucky with the carbon content. And carburization is almost as old as smelting, so it is not really practical for a civilization to be able to do one and not another when their neighbours can.

So I think it is more reasonable to think that your people do not do any smelting themselves and need to buy all their iron and steel from elsewhere because of that.

So what could prevent them from smelting?

I think the easiest solution is that the pollution the process produces is toxic to them. Since you do not want the reason to be specific to local resources, the only real alternative is carbon monoxide. This is used in smelting to reduce the iron oxides into metallic iron. It is fairly inevitable that some of the carbon monoxide created is not fully oxidized and concentrations nearby increase.

The issue with this is that carbon monoxide is a very common result of fire. Smelting produces more of it since the fire is intentionally starved of oxygen by stacking the charcoal but a species allergic enough to the stuff that they cannot do smelting at all would have real issues with cooking fires or forges. A barbecue would be grounds for execution.

Smelting is also used for reducing several other metals into metallic form. So they would be unable to produce copper, tin, silver or lead as well. So they'd be buying all their metals. Except gold. (Well, native copper and iron do exist.)

I honestly think you'd be better off with "they have no iron deposits" or "they prefer somebody else to lose all their trees". Producing iron and steel did cause significant damage to the environment, so a civilization that cares about things like that really would prefer to buy their steel.

If you want the biological angle, you can give them a symbiotic relationship with a tree or some other life form that requires fairly untouched forests to thrive. There were important plants such as silphium which were never successfully farmed. A species with dependency like this would quickly realize that making steel in their own country would be a bad idea.

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They have no hands

This species is a kind of talking unicorn. They need steel horseshoes to protect their hooves, as well as lots of steel appliances that they can operate with their legs and mouth so that they can do their day-to-day stuff. It has to be steel because they live in a place with high salinity, so the brine in the air will cause corrosion on regular iron.

The magic substance they trade for steel is solidified rainbows, which they produce in their bowels. It is a very powerful fertilizer.

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They're under water

A race underwater will have trouble developing metals, glasses, carbonized wood, fired clay, fired anything.

You mentioned that they're mammalian in the intro. Cetaceans would have real trouble making any of the materials mentioned, even if they had hands.

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They Aztecs and Mayans never gained significant iron or steel works because they lacked ready access to the raw materials.

The Aztecs never progressed past Bronze for this reason.

If your hypothetical race live on a world (or region of a world) where for whatever reason, most iron is buried deep and hard to reach (particularly if it rains a lot and the tunnels flood easily) then they might never develop iron or steel.

Other civilisations might not consider digging deep to be such an impediment, or might have encountered surface outcrops of iron-ore large enough to kickstart their interest in the metal.

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They are allergic to carbon monoxide Carbon Monoxide, a gas that is already quite toxic to most form of areobic life, is integral to steelmaking and smelting. On Earth, most life forms, include humans, can tolerate the levels found near furnaces used to smelt steel quite well, which is how we are able to use fire and smelt metals without needing to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning. However, even with this tolerance, modern steel workers still often need PPEs and good ventilation to prevent Carbon Monoxide poisoning when dealing with large furnaces and other devices that handle a large amount of molten iron/steel since low concentrations of Carbon monoxide is barely flammable, potentially allowing a buildup to poisonous levels even to humans ourselves. This race, however, completely lack even this level of tolerance to Carbon Monoxide, even allergic to it (Possibly due to a low level of Hemoglobin and/or the race’s hemoglobin having a O2 binding site that does not exclude CO well like Human hemoglobin does, from for example a lack of natural CO generation pathways within the ecosystem they evolved in. The Carboxyhemoglobin produced may also become a recognized antigen to their immune system due to it being unfamiliar to their biology), and as a result, anything larger than a well-ventilated campfire produces enough Carbon Monoxide to cause them to faint from Carbon Monoxide poisoning within a 3-m radius, and being even near a working steel mill is a guaranteed death sentence. They may be able to work with small fires (even that will require PPEs and constant care to prevent Carbon Monoxide poisoning), use hydrogen gas and electrolysis to smelt copper and even iron, (and even using hydrogen or electrical heating to heat existing steel to high enough temperatures To be forged without producing Carbon Monoxide gas) but since Carbon Monoxide is an integral part of the carburization process of turning iron into steel, making steel is completely impossible to them without at least astronaut-level protection, stainless included. That is, however, once the steel is made and have cooled to room temperature, the race is able to safely handle it without being poisoned, since room-temperature steel does not produce Carbon Monoxide, only the process of making or forging it does. Trading with steel articles with them are therefore both possible and highly profitable.

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Doing this with biology is likely to be tricky, but how about culturally?

For cultural reasons they have a taboo on working steel. perhaps it is a sacred metal which they are not allowed to profane (just as Christians got the Jews to carry out necessary banking functions which were taboo for them); perhaps they have a belief that working it will poison them, physically, psychologically or spiritually. Or maybe, for some cultural reason, it is seen as beneath them, like shovelling dung, so they prefer to pay others to do it.

We could do with something wacky like the magnetic field of iron being worked messing with their nervous system, but a cultural exclusion works so much better and gives scope for storytelling.

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Magika is a substance produced by certain creatures that stores energy in a way that resonates with the mind to alter reality.

Iron is a fantastic conductor of magical energy.

This makes weapons made of Steel and enhanced with Magika crystals extremely valuable as they are superior in every way to a magical attack or a weapon strike on its own. The creation of such weapons, however, requires an uneasy alliance with the magical and the mundane. A mundane, of course, is not capable of producing Magika, but can forge steel without issue. Someone of a magical race, on the other hand, could attempt to forge steel on their own, but the results would be at at best chaotic and likely deadly.

The issue is control. The magical races all radiate mana, it is what makes them magical after all, and even undirected, ambient mana will get pulled into steel. When steel is room temperature this is not an issue, though the mana does inhabit another vessel, ie the weapon, it doesn't have enough power to override the will of even the most novice mana user. When that same steel is hot enough to forge, now that is another story. The energy in white hot steel will combine with with the ambient mana from the would be smith and do what mana does best, alter reality, except in this case with no mind directing the outcome.

Hammering a white hot steel bar thrumming with wild mana has an equal chance of causing a plant nearby to burst into full bloom, flatten the metal like a normal blow or turn your smithy into a smoking crater.

In the past some experimentation had been done by some of the magical races to figure out a way to control the smithing process, but after several spectacularly fatal tries even attempting is outlawed.

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This race naturally generates a magnetic field. This magnetic field is strong enough to align iron with the field lines, weakening the structure of the metal, not to mention the distraction of little bits of super hot metal constantly whizzing at your face. Alloying with certain elements, such as nickel, can negate the magnetic properties of the resultant steel, or perhaps they like steel's response to magnetism, but first the steel must be produced, and the magnetic field makes it very difficult.

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Perhaps these creatures are allergic to some of the gasses released when producing steel. Or maybe they are afraid of pollution. Or perhaps they are afraid some rivaling species on their planet are going to overthrow their steel production and steal their steal.

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  • $\begingroup$ What makes steel more concerning than anything else with respect to pollution? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Mar 19 at 10:22
  • $\begingroup$ They might just be afraid of anything to do with pollution, which also includes steel production $\endgroup$ – Foolish Lemon Mar 19 at 11:20
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There is no oxygen in the air

(and their biology gets energy some other way - direct absorption of sunlight - eating oxidisers separately - maybe some nuclear process)

This means that iron is plentiful, it is in the ground, not as ore, but as metal - but it is contaminated by carbon. It can be melted and cast, but in order to make steel they would need to blow oxygen through the iron, something we accomplish by air and oxygen on earth.

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They live in atmosphere that is high in hydrofluoric (HF) gas, this will eat any steel as its made. However if steel, once made, is coated in PTFE (teflon etc), then it will be resistant. The other species make and coat steel parts to their specifications.

However, you will then need a plausible reason why they can't wear atmospheric suits and work in a low HF building.

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The simplest answer is not technological - it's social. Smelting steel (as opposed to using) is taboo in their culture. It is offensive to the great fiery smith (i'm guessing, feel free to fill in your own blanks), who objects to the raw materials being ripped from the ground and re-moulded. Once that's done of course, its too late to lament the problem and so using those tools is perfectly ok. Weirder things have happened in the name of religion.

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They never bothered to invest in mastering the process

You mention they have a magical substance, do they have magical powers? Humans use steel for making weapons, making transport vehicles, making cooking equipment etc. Why would you bother to build a car if you can teleport/fly, why make pans if you can heat food directly in any bowl?

Humans took centuries and millions of individual innovations/ideas to master steel making, if you can do most things you need steel for with much less effort then that investment may not have happened leaving you hundreds of years behind. Humans are only just beginning to catch up, but now that they are catching up, your other species doesn't want to miss out on this hot new technology.

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Making steel is a low level work. No one in the race agree with making it, they focus only in making the magical substance. They are nerds, magical nerds.

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